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ROBERTSON, JOHN ROSS, journalist, publisher, philanthropist, historian, and sportsman; b. 28 Dec. 1841 in Toronto, son of John Robertson, a dry goods merchant, and Margaret Sinclair; m. first 20 June 1871 Maria Louisa Gillbee in Toronto, and they had two sons and one daughter; m. there secondly 30 April 1888 Jessie Elizabeth Holland; there were no children by the second marriage; d. 31 May 1918 in Toronto.
As a youth, John Ross Robertson revealed a penchant for collecting pictures and historical memorabilia, an aptitude for swimming, hockey, and rowing, and a love for parades and decorations. At Upper Canada College in Toronto, where he was a student in 1850–51 and again after 1854, he showed an early proclivity for printer’s ink. In 1857 he began the monthly College Times, reputedly the first school paper in Canada, which he typeset and printed at home. In its first issue he criticized college authorities for a land deal which deprived students of a playground. His actions are reported to have saved the playground, but to avoid expulsion Robertson changed the name of the paper to Monthly Times; he later published it as Boy’s Times. He left Upper Canada College in 1860 for the Model Grammar School and started Young Canada, a better-written version of his first paper.
Robertson had already become a familiar face in Toronto newspaper offices, where he carried out job-printing contracts. For several years after he left school in 1861 his career mixed journalism, printing, and publishing. For a time he worked on the reportorial and advertising staff of the Leader, edited by Charles Lindsey*. In addition, he set up a job-printing office when he published Young Canada Sporting Life, an expanded version of his school paper, with more coverage of pastimes and sports, likely Canada’s first periodical devoted to sport; later in 1861 he changed its name to Sporting Life, and it appeared until 1863. He also published Robertson’s Canadian railway guide and, from 1863 to 1865, the Grumbler, a satirical weekly started by Erastus Wiman*.
George Brown*, publisher of the Globe, hired Robertson in 1865 as city editor, responsible for court and city hall news. Here Robertson developed what was to become his foremost journalistic strength, the ability to ferret out local news, and he easily won a contest among Globe reporters for bringing in the most news items by garnering 150 in one day. He is credited with introducing to the paper the practice of writing crisp, short paragraphs about a multiplicity of local happenings, rather than sermon-like and wordy essays about outstanding events. Robertson disliked working at the Globe, however, partly because it published long political diatribes at the expense of local news, but even more so because he considered Brown “the most notable charlatan this country has ever known.”
Robertson jumped at the chance when James Beaty Cook, on the staff of the Leader, invited him in 1866 to become co-proprietor of Toronto’s first evening newspaper which was not a separate edition of a morning newspaper. From its first copy on 21 May, the Daily Telegraph was an ambitious undertaking. Robertson and Cook quickly established morning and weekly editions and sought to topple the dominant Globe by mixing Conservative politics, sensation, and the occasional independent political comment. The paper trumpeted its intention to pursue politics “without party spirit” and to expose “unsparingly . . . all abuses and denounce all corruption no matter who the guilty parties may be.” Its promise of “today’s news today” heralded the coming to Canada of the innovative American-style “penny” press for the mass market.
At the Telegraph, Robertson and Cook eschewed lengthy political editorials for timely scoops; the Telegraph was, for example, the first paper in Toronto to announce the Fenian raid of 1866 at Ridgeway [see John O’Neill*]. Robertson’s groundbreaking journalism was apparent in his breathless eyewitness account of the Red River uprising of 1869–70. With Globe correspondent Robert Cunningham*, he travelled to the northwest by rail, steamer, and, for the last arduous 400 miles, horse-drawn cart. When Robertson arrived at the Red River settlement (Man.) in January 1870 Louis Riel* promptly had him arrested and imprisoned in Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg). After an interview with Riel, Robertson was expelled as a “dangerous character.” Making the most of this exploit by Robertson, the Telegraph employed the attention-grabbing, self-promotional techniques of a new style of journalism. In marked contrast to the staid, impersonal accounts in the Globe, it pulled out all the stops for “reports of the insurrection [which] will be fuller, more graphic and more trustworthy than [those in] any other journal.” Under stacked, descriptive headlines, often 12 lines deep and in single columns, Robertson wired a highly charged, personal account of the rebellion. His dramatic reports were reprinted throughout the North American press.
Robertson’s work on the Telegraph demonstrated a strong, even stubborn, independent streak, and a steadfast determination to speak his mind. In 1870 he denounced the violence carried out by members of the Young Britons during the Orange parade in Toronto, despite his prominence as an Orangeman; as a consequence, he was condemned by some of the leaders in the order and the office of his newspaper was threatened with destruction.
Sir John Stephen Willison* spoke of the “vigour, courage and originality” of the Telegraph, but the paper was not successful financially, and it eventually fell victim to the hostility of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald*, who wanted a dependable Tory organ in Toronto to combat Brown’s Globe. The Conservative party had begun providing support to the Telegraph in 1869 at the behest of Cook and editor Daniel Morrison*. However, Macdonald distrusted Robertson because of the Telegraph’s criticism of his government, especially for its handling of the rebellion in 1869–70 and its policies on subsidies to railways; once, Robertson pointedly ignored a call from Ottawa asking the paper to “call off its dogs.” Convinced of Robertson’s inherent unreliability, Macdonald withdrew vital Tory patronage from the Telegraph after Cook left the partnership in May 1871. Faced with ruin, Robertson attempted to conciliate Macdonald and make the Telegraph the official Tory organ, but in vain. Unhappy with both the Leader and the Telegraph, which in November he said was a “mere blackmail sheet, and the sooner it is crushed the better,” Macdonald was already making plans for not only the ouster of Robertson from the Telegraph but also the publication of the new Tory organ, the Toronto Daily Mail. The Telegraph ceased to appear in May 1872.
Overlooking their political and personal enmity, George Brown hired Robertson as the Globe’s resident correspondent and business representative in London, England. Robertson lasted until 1875, when he returned to Toronto and became the business manager of the weekly Nation, the Canada First organ founded in the previous year [see William Alexander Foster*]. He acquitted himself well, and so in 1876 was the logical choice of Goldwin Smith*, who was one of the principal contributors to the Nation, as publisher of a new Toronto daily to challenge Brown’s Globe. Smith gave Robertson $10,000 to found a paper “for the masses and not the classes.” On 18 April 1876 the Evening Telegram appeared for the first time, its name chosen to signal the immediacy of the news it printed. Robertson promised that it would be an “independent” newspaper, “not an organ; it will have no patron but the public.” He soon alienated Smith, however, by refusing to go along with him on the subject of Canada’s relations with the United States and by supporting the Conservatives in the 1878 campaign. The first editor, John Charles Dent*, also soon left.
The paper “paid from the start,” according to Robertson. Key to its success was Robertson’s innovative practice of cutting the rate for want ads to one cent a word, which was half the going rate. The reduction of the paper’s price to one penny 14 months after it was launched, Robertson’s competitive tactic of “a word a cent and a cent a copy,” and his focus on local news made the Telegram indispensable reading for Torontonians. Indeed, one of the sights of Toronto was the gathering at 5:00 p.m. of hundreds of men around the Telegram’s office on Melinda Street to read the “wants” columns on the front page. The Telegram became the newspaper with the largest circulation in the city by the early 1880s.
The Telegram also prospered because of Robertson’s success in keeping labour costs low. A paternalistic employer, he paid for staff funeral costs and reluctantly granted the occasional raise, but he was notoriously domineering and tight-fisted. He believed that virtue was its own reward, and that low pay and long hours kept his employees virtuous. Anti-union like George Brown, Robertson denied his printers the right to organize and was able to pay below union-scale wages. His Telegraph had been a leader in resisting the campaign by printers for a nine-hour day, and during the 1872 strike Robertson successfully prosecuted one of his men for deserting his job. In 1882 the Telegram became the first target among the Toronto dailies of a boycott organized by the International Typographical Union with the support of the Toronto Trades and Labor Council. The boycott failed in 1884 and the paper remained defiantly non-union until 1891. Although it was widely believed that Robertson then graciously paid union fees for his workers, his printers paid them. The unionization of the Telegram’s printers was significant in that it completed the unionization of all Toronto newspapers and hastened the acceptance of trade unions as a legitimate part of industrial organization.
Along with Hugh Graham*’s Montreal Daily Star, Robertson’s Telegram became the embodiment of the new people’s press in Canada, which focused on a sensationalist and massive coverage of local news instead of partisan editorials on national politics. Their founders were among the first Canadian press barons. In Toronto Robertson pioneered the successful news formula, which satisfied the need of the increasingly literate urban population for easily understandable and entertaining information. The Telegram specialized in presenting news in the form of a pot-pourri of titbit items, trivia, maverick politics, and vigorous local political crusades, one of the first being against a proposal for a bonus of $250,000 from the city to the promoters of the Credit Valley Railway. It was the first to emphasize municipal events by reporting on the city council, the water commission, police courts, hospitals, sports, and crime. The newspaper’s innovative practice of using interviews to canvass public opinion helped its circulation to rise spectacularly.
By the 1880s Robertson’s Telegram was already considered by Charles Pelham Mulvany* “par excellence, the family newspaper” in Toronto and it was an “institution . . . read by every one from the fashionable belle in her boudoir to Biddy in the basement!” Robertson had accomplished this feat by employing the self-advertising techniques of the American penny press. Rather than simply reporting the news, the Telegram began to make the news. In addition to mounting heavily publicized investigations of the “financial folly enacted . . . by our elected representatives,” Robertson and the Telegram also promoted and paid for a number of public projects such as providing band music in parks and importing an ambulance from Britain. The newspaper constantly kept its name before the public; for example, starting with the federal election in 1878, it projected returns by means of an oxyhydrogen lamp in front of the Telegram’s office before crowds that reached 10,000. By 1880 the Telegram was also considered the best advertising vehicle in the city because of its pre-eminence in Toronto homes, and it attracted the business of the expanding department stores of Timothy Eaton* and Robert Simpson*, as well as of the emerging manufacturers of brand name products.
Robertson was fortunate in obtaining the services of highly effective editors to succeed Dent, first Alexander Fraser Pirie, and then in 1888 John Robinson Robinson. According to historian Jesse Edgar Middleton*, the opinionated and blunt “Black Jack” Robinson made the Telegram a terror to those aldermen and civic officials “who showed signs of ‘wobbling’ or seemed unduly eager for self-aggrandisement.” Robinson’s editorial tirades mirrored Robertson’s strident support of the Orange order, the British empire, and Canadian nationalism, and his anti-American, anti-Quebec, and anticlerical biases. The newspaper in turn reflected and reinforced the sentiments of much of late-19th-century Protestant Tory Toronto.
In 1877 Robertson had also begun a career characterized by literary scholar Douglas Grant Lochhead as that of “a successful and seemingly shameless pirate-publisher” when he reprinted in paperback a work by Dwight Lyman Moody, first published in the United States, without authorization or payment of royalties. In the absence of effective copyright legislation [see John Lovell*], Robertson was able to sell the works of popular foreign authors, in his “Robertson Cheap Editions,” at 3 to 50 cents a copy, a fraction of their list price. It is estimated that he may have sold up to two million copies of about 350 pirated titles from 1877 to the early 1890s. He also frequently serialized in the Telegram works he published in separate editions.
By the mid 1880s Robertson was wealthy and powerful. His influence in municipal affairs had become legendary, and the Telegram had the reputation of being able to make and unmake civic politicians. Robert Lorne Richardson*, founder of the Winnipeg Daily Tribune, would observe in 1918 that “it was practically a death-knell to the aspirations of any public man in Toronto to have Mr. Robertson and his newspaper opposed to him.” The energetic support of the Telegram was credited by some with the success of William Holmes Howland* in his election as mayor in 1886. Robertson’s successful endorsement of Robert John Fleming* in the 1892 and subsequent mayoral elections led to the belief that the Telegram’s support ensured victory. Later, Thomas Langton Church* was known as the Telegram’s candidate, and the paper’s aldermanic slates were also often successful.
Robertson’s influence spread beyond the municipal stage in the 1890s. Encouraged in 1896 by D’Alton McCarthy* and Nathaniel Clarke Wallace* to run for the House of Commons as an independent Conservative in opposition to the proposed remedial legislation for Manitoba schools [see Sir Mackenzie Bowell] and in support of the National Policy, Robertson won the Toronto East riding by one of the largest majorities in Ontario. In parliament he generally supported the Conservative opposition but occasionally took independent positions. As he had all his life, he often served as a watch-dog against government waste and denounced subsidies to railways; he opposed aid to both the Canadian Pacific and the William Mackenzie* and Donald Mann* interests. Parliamentary life did not suit him, however, and he declined to stand for re-election in 1900, believing that he could have more influence on public affairs through the pages of his newspaper.
In parliament Robertson had been active in an ongoing campaign to pressure the government to pass a Canadian copyright act. His efforts may appear strange, given his earlier career, but he later protested that he had pirated foreign works precisely to bring about a Canadian copyright act and also to provide Canadians with accessible reading. Robertson and other Canadian publishers feared the consequences of the Berne Convention, which Britain adhered to in 1886, because it legalized the flood into Canada of cheap American reprints of British authors, thus threatening the existence of Canadian book publishing. In January 1889, after becoming president of the Canadian Copyright Association, which he had helped establish, Robertson led a delegation to meet with the minister of justice, Sir John Sparrow David Thompson*, and demanded a “national policy” for the Canadian book trade. In response, Thompson steered a bill through parliament in 1889 that would allow the publication in Canada of British authors after a short period of time. The act was still-born: the Colonial Office refused its assent, in part because it considered the Canadian act to be in conflict with such imperial legislation as the Literary Copyright Act of 1842 and the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865, but also in order to be able to bargain away the Canadian market in return for copyright protection for British authors in American legislation.
The British government’s continued intransigence on copyright soured relations between Ottawa and London and raised the more significant issue of Canadian independence. Thompson wrote to Robertson in 1892 that the copyright question had become for him a “question of principle,” and as prime minister, he sent him to London in 1894 to “straighten out the Copyright tangle.” Robertson reported that his unofficial mission had failed because of British sentiment that “when the day comes that Canada has a right to ride roughshod over the Imperial Act the connecting link between England and Canada will be severed.” Yet, Robertson persevered and in 1895 he participated on behalf of the Canadian Copyright Association in a meeting with representatives of the Canadian government and the British Copyright Association to settle the affair. A tentative agreement was reached, but Canada did not achieve autonomy in copyright matters until 1911. In that year the imperial parliament approved legislation allowing self-governing colonies to pass their own copyright legislation, which Ottawa finally did in 1921.
Like other businessmen in the late 19th century, Robertson was an enthusiastic advocate of the movement for civic reform and public ownership of services and utilities. The Telegram was regarded as an important and “uncompromising” campaigner in the fight for public ownership of hydroelectric power in the early 1900s, a policy advocated by Adam Beck* and his fellow Tory mlas under James Pliny Whitney. Robertson kept special watch over hydro matters in Toronto, and Edward Montague Ashworth, who later became general manager of the Toronto Electric Commissioners, would reflect in his memoirs that Robertson was “more important to us than the Mayor, or even than Adam Beck.” Robertson occasionally went so far as to dictate policy to hydro authorities; once when an engineer argued that a proposal by Robertson would ruin the utility, the latter rejoined: “Well, I made it, didn’t I?” Beck himself valued the Telegram, using it for controlled leaks; a rate increase was announced in the Telegram before the Toronto hydro commission even got wind of it.
Robertson’s strongly held imperialist views were evident in the Telegram’s strident support of Canadian participation in the South African War. Combined with his nationalist convictions, they led to his sowing the seeds for the formation of the Canadian Press agency. Dissatisfied with the anti-British bias in the cable reports of the Associated Press and aided by a grant from the federal government, Robertson and Hugh Graham in 1902 set up the Canadian Associated Press, the first wire service to transmit news directly from London. However, its limited nature pointed to the need for a wider news service. In 1910 the Western Associated Press, a cooperative newsgathering agency formed in western Canada in 1907, mounted a campaign against the discriminatory rates charged by Canadian Pacific Telegraphs, which held the rights to transmit the Associated Press news service. As a result, these rights were transferred to newspaper publishers and the formation of a Canadian service became a pressing matter. Robertson led publishers from eastern Canada in negotiations with the Western Associated Press to form Canadian Press Limited in 1910 and he sat on its first board.
Highly respected by his colleagues in journalism, Robertson served as president of the Toronto Press Club and honorary president of the Canadian Press Association. When he warned daily newspaper publishers they would be swamped in the Canadian Publishers’ Association, they formed a separate section in 1912, a forerunner of the Canadian Daily Newspapers Association, created in 1919.
Robertson’s boundless energy and widespread interests manifested themselves in other fields, and in the 1880s he devoted himself increasingly to masonic affairs, historical research and collecting, amateur sports, and philanthropy. He had joined the masonic order in 1867 and became its most celebrated member in Canada. Elected grand master of the Grand Lodge of Canada in 1890, he read the masonic rite of the dead at the funeral the next year of fellow mason Sir John A. Macdonald, whom he succeeded as grand representative in Canada of the Grand Lodge of England. At his coronation in 1902, King Edward VII conferred upon Robertson the honorary rank of past grand warden of England. Robertson also devised the “Robertson ballot” method of voting in the order. His published works include the two-volume, 2,000-page History of freemasonry in Canada, from its introduction in 1749 . . . (1899).
All his life, Robertson was a passionate student of history and collector of historical memorabilia. As a boy of 12, he had started a historical picture collection. He began compiling materials on masonic history as soon as he joined the order, and this activity spurred a wider interest in early Canadian history. It would lead Robertson to amass the largest collection of Canadiana in his time. His enthusiasm also manifested itself in the pages of the Telegram, where he assigned Thomas Edward Champion and other reporters to write on early Toronto history; the weekly articles were republished at Robertson’s expense in a massive six-volume series. Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto constitutes a detailed record of Toronto from 1792 to 1914, a “goldmine of information,” though the work contains many errors.
Robertson’s passion for collecting historical materials, pictures, maps, books, and other documents increased as he grew older, and his face became familiar to antiquarian shopkeepers all over North America and Europe. Following his discovery in the British Museum of the water-colours of Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim*, wife of Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, he edited The diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe, published in 1911. Between 1912 and 1917, when his collection had grown larger than his ability to house it, he donated thousands of historical paintings, reproductions, original maps, and documents, as well as ornithological illustrations by William Pope, to the Toronto Public Library. Despite the indiscriminate nature of the collection, its value cannot be questioned.
Robertson’s philanthropy became well known, and his benefactions to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children especially impressed contemporaries. From 1883, the year after his only daughter succumbed to scarlet fever, to his death, Robertson gave some $500,000, and he made frequent appeals in the Telegram for public donations. He oversaw the establishment of a convalescent retreat, the Lakeside Home for Little Children, on Toronto Island in 1883, the construction on College Street of a new building in 1889, the addition of a five-storey nurses’ residence and college in 1905, and the establishment of a special milk pasteurization plant in 1909, and he also served as trustee from 1885 and as chairman of the board from 1891. He visited the hospital every day and was its Santa Claus. At his death, his will stipulated a special endowment fund for the hospital based on profits from the Telegram.
The world of sport was also a focus for Robertson’s public-spiritedness. A fervent advocate of amateur sport, he became president of the Ontario Hockey Association in 1899, at a critical moment in the history of the sport. His battle to protect hockey from the influence of professionalism caused him to be called the “father of Amateur Hockey in Ontario.” According to Alan Metcalfe, Robertson’s legacy was mixed: the OHA was able to set rules defining professionalism in hockey but professionalism increased enormously after 1910, with the result that participation in organized amateur hockey in central Canada was limited to a middle-class élite. When he retired as president in 1905, he was made a life member of the association, and he continued to run its affairs as one of its “Three White Czars.” He worked especially hard to rid hockey of increasing violence both on and off the ice. Robertson’s donation of silver trophies to hockey, cricket, and bowling further encouraged amateur competition. He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945.
Robertson’s public presence did not go unnoticed. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1914. On 31 Dec. 1916 he refused Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden*’s offer of a senatorship and a knighthood, becoming the only man in Canada to reject both honours in one day.
For some, Robertson was a paradox; his gruff, dour exterior and his bullying nature belied his numerous acts of private and public charity. Yet, his detractors described his charity as self-aggrandizing and suggested that he profited from it. Opinion was also divided about his achievements as a newspaperman. At his death many called him Canada’s leading journalist. In 1893, however, Edmund Ernest Sheppard* had denounced him in Saturday Night (Toronto) as a “newspaper brawler” and wondered if Robertson himself would withstand the character assassination and scrutiny he liked to dish out to others.
When Robertson died in 1918 he left an estate estimated at about $1,750,000. But he was not interested in wealth for its own sake. He sought instead what it brought in its wake: prestige, power, and influence, which the Telegram’s success allowed him to possess in abundance. As one of the first very wealthy publishers, Robertson, in his career, signalled the transition of Canada’s newspaper publishers from the world of journalism to that of business, and of their newspapers from 19th-century political vehicles to 20th-century profit-making corporations.
John Ross Robertson’s two-volume History of freemasonry in Canada was published in Toronto in 1899 and appeared in another edition in 1900. The six volumes of Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto were issued between 1894 and 1914. A revised edition of The diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe was published at Toronto in 1934, and the original 1911 text was reprinted there in 1973.
AO, F 982, MU 2006, box 2, envelope 12, 20 June 1871; F 1177; RG 80-5-0-165, no.13719. NA, MG 26, D. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 31 May-1 June 1918. Globe, 1 June 1918. E. M. Ashworth, Toronto Hydro recollections (Toronto, 1955). Carman Cumming, Secret craft: the journalism of Edward Farrer (Toronto, 1992). Dict. of Toronto printers (Hulse). “The Evening Telegram”: a story of the years ([Toronto, 1889]; copy in MTRL, BR). “‘John Ross’ and the hydro,” Saturday Night, 22 June 1918: 3. G. S. Kealey, Toronto workers respond to industrial capitalism, 1867–1892 (Toronto, 1980; repr. 1991). D. [G.] Lochhead, “John Ross Robertson, uncommon publisher for the common reader: his first years as a Toronto book publisher,” JCS, 11 (1976), no.2: 19–26. Alan Metcalfe, Canada learns to play: the emergence of organized sport, 1807–1914 (Toronto, 1987). J. E. Middleton, The municipality of Toronto: a history (3v., Toronto and New York, 1923). C. P. Mulvany, Toronto: past and present; a handbook of the city (Toronto, 1884; repr. 1970). M. E. Nichols, (CP): the story of the Canadian Press (Toronto, 1948). W. R. Plewman, Adam Beck and the Ontario Hydro (Toronto, 1947). Ron Poulton, The paper tyrant: John Ross Robertson of the Toronto “Telegram” (Toronto and Vancouver, 1971). Paul Rutherford, A Victorian authority: the daily press in late nineteenth-century Canada (Toronto, 1982). [E. E. Sheppard], “Around town,” Saturday Night, 14 Jan. 1893: 1. R. A. Shields, “Imperial policy and the Canadian Copyright Act of 1889,” Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), 60 (1980–81): 634–58. M. A. Snider, “The public picture gallery of John Ross Robertson,” Canadian Courier (Toronto), 22 June 1912: 10–11. M. M. Sotiron, “From politics to profit: the commercialization of Canadian English-language daily newspapers, 1890 to 1920” (phd thesis, Concordia Univ., Montreal, 1990). Waite, Man from Halifax. J. [S.] Willison, Reminiscences, political and personal (Toronto, 1919).
© 1998–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Minko Sotiron, “ROBERTSON, JOHN ROSS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_john_ross_14E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Minko Sotiron|
|Title of Article:||ROBERTSON, JOHN ROSS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1998|
|Year of revision:||1998|
|Access Date:||May 27, 2023|